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Ryan's struggles remain a mystery

Ryan's struggles remain a mystery

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brad Arnsberg leaned against a wall outside the visitors' clubhouse at the Metrodome, arms crossed and visibly frustrated by another interview about Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan. Toronto's pitching coach has grown tired of discussing the topic and he defended the stuggling stopper.

It was a disappointing first week for Ryan, but the poor results up to this point haven't cost him his job as the Blue Jays' ninth-inning option. Toronto manager Cito Gaston put another save opportunity in Ryan's hands on Monday night, and he delivered with his first clean inning of the 2009 campaign.

"We've talked earlier about confidence and success," Gaston said after Ryan nailed down the ninth inning of the Jays' 8-6 win over the Twins. "He had a little success tonight, so I hope he gains some confidence."

Ryan's first save of the season will temporarily quiet the issue, but the closer will need to string together a few solid performances to prove he is over the command trouble that has plagued him since the spring.

Following a subpar performance on Saturday, when Ryan nearly erased a four-run Toronto lead in the ninth inning in Cleveland, Arnsberg headed over to the closer's locker and talked to him for an extended period of time at Progressive Field. It has been hard for Arnsberg to keep the frustration he has felt from showing.

"Nobody hurts for him more than I do and he knows that," Arnsberg said prior to Monday's game.

Why Ryan has struggled to the extent that he has since Spring Training is admittedly a source of confusion for Arnsberg. During the preseason, Gaston brought to light concerns about Ryan's pitch velocity, but that is no longer much of an issue. Now, it has been Ryan's pitch command that has wavered.

Arnsberg said he was not going to pretend to know the solution.

"I don't know why he's not throwing the ball over the plate," Arnsberg said. "I know he's got a heart the size of Texas. I know he's busting his [rear] to thrill all the fans in Toronto -- make everybody turn their backs on the B.J. Ryan saga. That's all we're doing. Again, one foot in front of the other and that's it. I don't have the answers."

Ryan did his part to show that he's making strides in his appearance against the Twins. The closer threw 12 pitches, including 11 that registered for strikes. Ryan did allow a pair of singles, but a double-play groundout and flyout canceled out the hits.

Jays catcher Rod Barajas hopes that's a sign that Ryan has turned a corner.

"We're not worried about him," Barajas said. "He works so hard and he cares so much and he wants to do well out there. Even if he did have struggles early on, he was going to battle, he was going to compete and, the next time he got the opportunity, he was going to go after it. Tonight, he showed that.

"He did well for us, and that's what we're expecting. We're not thinking that the lack of velocity or anything is going to affect him. He knows how to pitch and he's going to get himself ready."

In his previous two appearances -- hardly a large sample size -- Ryan had blown one save opportunity and surrendered four runs on four hits with three walks and one strikeout over 1 2/3 innings, using 47 pitches (25 strikes) over that span. On Saturday, he entered the ninth with a 5-1 lead, and issued three walks and gave up three runs before being replaced by reliever Jason Frasor with two outs.

Ryan's woes haven't been limited to the season's first week, though. In 10 Grapefruit League games, Ryan yielded seven runs on eight hits over nine innings, during which he issue eight free passes and fanned seven. Ryan ended the spring with a 7.00 ERA and his fastball didn't return to its typical 86-89 mph range until shortly before the season.

Ryan has acted annoyed by the constant questions about his early showing.

"Things get blown out of proportion," Ryan said on Monday. "People have their opinions and they're going to say what they're going to say. It's just one of those things that's out of your control, so you just continue to work hard and put yourself in a place to succeed and good things will happen."

Last season, Ryan saved 32 games for the Blue Jays and posted a 2.95 ERA over 60 games. His best season with Toronto came in 2006, when he notched 38 saves, fashioned a 1.37 ERA and was named to the American League All-Star team.

Gaston has shown that he's willing to keep Ryan in the closer's role for now.

"I'm not going to do anything that's going to hurt this team," Gaston said. "If it doesn't work out for him, then we have to find someone else to go out there and do that role. But, right now, I'll run him out there again and we'll see what happens with that. I'm not going to keep running him out there if it's not working -- no matter who it is."

As things currently stand, left-hander Scott Downs would be the top choice to replace Ryan as the closer, if the issue reaches that stage. One problem is that the Jays have made a long-term investment in Ryan, who is scheduled to earn $10 million this year and next -- the final two seasons under his five-year contract.

Arnsberg expressed some frustration with Toronto's reporters, complaining of what he has perceived to be negative coverage of his pitching staff. Arnsberg said he believes the problems with Ryan have been blown somewhat out of proportion by the press.

"It's magnified because all you guys have magnified it so much," Arnsberg told reporters. "First, it's the velocity and even early in the spring it was his command last year and the walks. That's why it's magnified. It's just gotten more magnified. He's going out there trying to put good innings together -- he's just not having great success with that right now."

The Blue Jays continue to reiterate that Ryan -- nearly two years removed from Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his left elbow -- is completely healthy. The only issue right now is Ryan's pitch command and both Arnsberg and Gaston agree that running the closer out to the mound again is the best option right now.

"If you've got other suggestions, then I'm all open, my ears are wide open," Arnsberg said. "I don't know what else you expect. Do you think we should demote him to Triple-A? I don't know. It's a tough subject. You're dealing with a guy that has had huge upside and has been through a lot. I don't know what else to say, man. I don't know what you guys are looking for.

"We're looking for solid innings and I guess the only way we're going to get that is by putting him back out there."

Ryan answered the call, and tried to erase some doubts, against the Twins.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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